Wilson's Heart is the first can't-miss virtual reality game. That's my gut reaction.
Now, the reality of the situation is a bit more complicated. I've gotten plenty of use out of both my Oculus Rift and HTC Vive over the past year, experimenting with dozens if not hundreds of games and experiences. Job Simulator and Fantastic Contraption impressed early on, Call of the Starseed took spectacle to a new level, and Arizona Sunshine was both lengthy enough and polished enough to feel like a "full game." To say nothing of Google Earth VR, Tilt Brush, Oculus Medium, and other non-gaming applications.
Virtual reality's been interesting, in other words, if a bit underwhelming at times. And to be honest I'm not sure Wilson's Heart does enough to elevate itself above the rest, to convince people of VR's long-term potential where other games failed, especially considering it's exclusive to the Rift and more than half of VR headset owners won't play it. A shame.
But it's ambitious. We've spent a year talking about VR's potential—about how great VR could be at some far-distant point in the future. More than any other game, I think Wilson's Heart illustrates that point. If VR takes off, this will be one of the early experiences worth pointing out to people. And if it doesn't? It'll be one of the few games (so far at least) I think those on the outside will be sad they missed.
Hospital on Haunted Hill
Wilson's Heart puts you in the grizzled, liver-spotted hands of titular Robert Wilson. You awaken in an abandoned 1940s hospital to find you've been strapped to a table, presumably for the operation that removed your heart and replaced it with a…floating glass orb…thing. Wilson decides, rather reasonably, that he wants his normal human heart back, and sets off to find it.
The hospital's (gasp!) not really abandoned, of course, just beset by the forces of evil. Monsters stalk the halls, preying on the remaining few left alive. Also there's a killer teddy bear.
Technically it's a horror game, but not modern horror. Wilson's Heart draws inspiration from Pre-Code and Golden Age Hollywood monster flicks—The Wolf Man, Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on.
It's wild. Rendered all in black-and-white, with a constant thunderstorm outside, Wilson's Heart straddles the line between "mildly creepy" and "mildly cheesy." It's fun horror, leaning into every cliché horror trope along the way. Werewolves transforming by the light of the moon! Vampires sucking the blood from their hospital-bound victims! Killer mannequins! It's the sort of game where you expect to see Vincent Price walk out, twirl his mustache, and deliver melodramatic narration.
There are even short comic books to flip open and read along the way, further detailing the characters in the game while also indicating what sort of tone Wilson's Heart is aiming at. It's pulp horror, more Young Frankenstein than Frankenstein proper.
Add in amazing World War II-style propaganda posters, bizarre (and ultraviolent) radio serials to discover and listen to, eerie oil paintings of hospital employees, ominous-looking machines with oversized electrodes…
I love it. When Wilson's Heart stumbles, and it stumbles quite a bit, I find myself prone to forgiveness simply because the game is so damn charming. No other VR game is quite so sure of itself, displays quite so deft a hand when it comes to creating a world.
Wilson's Heart is also helped by a stunning voice cast. Peter Weller does an excellent job of turning Wilson into a too-old-for-this-monster-nonsense old man, Rosario Dawson is delightful as fellow survivor Elsa, and Alfred Molina seems to have had a great time hamming it up as "Bela Blasco" with his best Bela Lugosi impression. It's one of the rare games where an all-star cast actually resulted in excellent performances.
Square peg, square hole
The downside: This unique aesthetic is wrapped around an increasingly mundane set of mechanics. Wilson's Heart is the latest in a growing line of VR adventure games. Using Oculus's finger-sensing Touch controllers, you'll be doing the same sorts of realistic item-based puzzles seen dozens of times over—opening drawers, turning keys in locks, throwing objects at other objects, flipping switches, prying lids off jars, and what have you.
Interactions in Wilson's Heart are about as polished as they come, and there are a handful of unique moments I don't want to spoil, but the novelty has likely long worn thin for regular VR users. The whole idea behind virtual reality is it behaves like regular reality, and while that's kind-of amazing the first time you throw a glass to the ground and it shatters, it's a bit less impressive a year later. When that's the full basis behind some of your puzzles? Well.
It's also very limited. While games like Job Simulator put you in a confined space but make everything part of the toy box, Wilson's Heart gives you an enormous space with only a few interactive bits. Movement is node-based, with Wilson teleporting to specific spots and picking up specific items.
On the one hand, it's clean and uncomplicated—especially working within the limitations of Oculus's hardware. While I'm still a bit annoyed at how the Rift's room scale works (or rather, doesn't) compared to the better Vive tracking, Wilson's Heart does a clever thing to get around the problem: It always teleports you with the "important stuff" aimed toward the front of your Oculus space. There's very little in the way of spinning around, and you always know which way to re-orient to face back toward the Rift's sensors, thus limiting how often the Rift loses position-tracking on the Touch controllers or headset.
That's the good news. The bad news is that outside of the few items needed for each puzzle, the hospital doesn't feel very lively. What makes one drawer openable while another's sealed shut? What makes it so you can pick up a comic book but can't pick up the novel right next to it?
These problems aren't unique to VR, but they're quite a bit more distracting in VR. When you finally lose yourself in Wilson's Heart, when you expect objects to behave as they would in the real world, it can be disorienting to reach for a wooden block or a saw or whatever and watch your hand pass right through it.
There's also at least one major Rift limitation that should've been caught and worked around by the developers: Text. Those comic books I mentioned before? Amazing, but only if you can read them. Small text on the Rift is still a nightmare at times, and while I squinted my way through the books I suspect most people won't even bother. They'll look at the pictures and miss most of the subtleties.
Then there are the boss battles. Listen: Boss battles are almost always bad, and Wilson's Heart is no exception. The look of each boss in Wilson's Heart is great, but combine one-hit kills with fiddly controls and it's a recipe for disaster. Worse, each boss battle is probably three times as long as it needs to be. Luckily they're only one small piece of the game.
Wilson's Heart treats VR like a tool, not a gimmick. That's the key. Sure, there are a few gimmicky moments, but at the end of the day Wilson's Heart is a good game that happens to be made for VR, and not just made to show off VR technology. If you reworked Wilson's Heart's puzzles for a normal screen, using the same story and setting, the same black-and-white aesthetic and the monster-of-the-week trappings, it would still be worth playing.
That's what makes it the first can't-miss VR game. There are plenty of great experiences to be had in VR, some of which utilize the hardware better, or repurpose it in more creative ways, but they mostly feel like experiments. Wilson's Heart takes those experiments and twines them together into something coherent.
The result? For all its myriad flaws, Wilson's Heart is the closest I've seen to a "real game" on the platform, and proof that, given a talented team and enough development time, VR could possibly (at some point in the far-flung future) live up to its potential.
If you think VR is a short-lived fad, well, that's your prerogative. Hell, you may even be right in the long run. But you'll still have missed out on Wilson's Heart, and that's a shame.